Breaking through invisibility: Vancouver Asian Film Festival holds summit on Asians in Hollywood

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      On the one hand, production companies sometimes say that they can't find an Asian North American star with a marquee-draw name or enough experience for certain Hollywood films or TV shows.

      On the other hand, roles for Asian North American actors are extremely limited, and so it's hard for these actors to have the chance to develop their talents on screen and to gain the experience that's required.

      It's a vicious circle.

      It's been an uphill battle and the gains have been limited to fits and starts but momentum has never been maintained.

      While Asian American actors made a mainstream splash with the 1993 big-screen adaptation of Amy Tan's novel The Joy Luck Club, here in Canada, Mina Shum made her feature film directorial debut in 1994 with Double Happiness, which launched the career of Sandra Oh (who went on to Grey's Anatomy and numerous other TV shows and films), and Shum later made the 2002 feature Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity, also starring Oh.

      Then in 1994, Margaret Cho launched the first Asian-American TV sitcom All-American Girl, which was cancelled after one season.

      Margaret Cho

      While in the '90s and '00s, there were a number of Asian stars (from Asia, rather than North America) like Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-Fat, Ziyi Zhang, and Ken Watanabe in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Last Samurai, Romeo Must Die, and The King and I, Asian North American representation remained limited to side roles rather than central ones.

      Lucy Liu (Charlie's Angels, Kill Bill), Kelly Hu (X-Men 2), Masi Oka (Heroes), Daniel Dae Kim (Lost, Hawaii Five-0), Yunjin Kim (Lost), Will Yun Lee (The Wolverine), Ken Jeong (The Hangover), Jason Scott Lee (The Jungle Book), Terry Chen (Almost Famous, Continuum), and Grace Park (Battlestar Galactica, Hawaii Five-0) are just some of the North American actors who managed to star in big-budget productions.

      Jason Scott Lee

      On this side of the border, there have been Asian Canadian actors in roles in films like Everything's Gone Green and TV shows such as the short-lived jPod and The Romeo Section.

      One exception in the U.S. was Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, starring John Cho and Kal Penn.

      In Canada, there was Vancouver filmmaker Julia Kwan's 2005 feature film Eve and the Fire Horse.

      Then in 2015, the American sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, centered around a Taiwanese American family, debuted.

      Kim's Convenience

      Now all of a sudden, there's not one, but three Canadian TV series airing featuring—and centred around—Asian Canadian lead characters.

      The CBC sitcom Kim's Convenience, a TV adaptation of Ins Choi's stageplay, stars Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Jean Yoon, Simu Liu, and Andrea Bang as a Korean Canadian family running the titular convenience store.

      In OMNI TV's Blood and Water, Canadian actor Steph Song plays the gritty detective Jo Bradley, who is on her first case as a lead. She's investigating the murder of a billionaire developer's son but finds herself embroiled in more than she bargained for, both personally and professionally, within the Chinese Canadian community in Vancouver.

      Over at City television, Metro Vancouver's Samantha Wan and Toronto's Amanda Joy co-created and star in Second Jen, a sitcom about two twenty-something Asian Canadians who adjust to life on their own for the first time, despite resistance from their parents.

      In an interview with the Georgia Straight, Wan said by phone that she believes what has helped break the no-win cycle has been the internet, or more specifically YouTube.

      "I think YouTube has helped networks realize that there's this big Asian audience, particularly second generation," she said.

      She cited the example of Asian YouTube stars, and especially second generation Asian North Americans, who have garnered huge followings and were reaching an audience left unaddressed and overlooked by major networks and studios.

      Wan pointed out that the success of YouTube channels by Asian North American stars have provided a more visible, measurable audience with social media and online platforms that executives can actually see.

      John Cho

      While one way to help ensure change is to watch and support these shows, another route is to become active and vocal.

      The Vancouver Asian Film Festival, about to launch its 20th edition on Friday (November 3), has been a longtime supporter of Asian North American representation.

      VAFF has supported campaigns such as #OscarsSoWhite and #StarringJohnCho.

      The latter is an example of an Asian North American response to Hollywood's attempt to replace Asian roles with white ones or inserting white characters in Asian-based dramas, including the live-action version of Mulan and the Ancient One character in Doctor Strange, who was Asian in the comic book but changed to a white character played by Tilda Swinton in the film.

      This year, VAFF, which runs from November 3 to 6, is hosting the AIM3 Summit—Asian in Movies | Media | Music on November 4 and 5.

      Three sessions will be held, each focussing on a different field of entertainment.

      The first session will be on comics, in which comic book and graphic novel writers and illustrators will talk about their experiences of creating Asian North American characters.

      The second one will move on to North American music, with speakers from the music industry addressing the domestic market for future careers, rather than having to resort to heading into foreign markets in Asia.

      The final session will address the struggles that Asian North Americans have faced in the film industry and what economic potential there is that hasn't been tapped into.

      Among the speakers at this session will be New York media strategist, who launched the #StarringJohnCho campaign, William Yu; Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang; and actors Agam Darshi (Sanctuary) and Diana Bang (The Interview).  

      Diana Bang

      While all of this may seem focused solely on Asian North Americans, this social push for representation does have broader social implications for Vancouver in particular.

      As a city with a significant population of Asian descent, our future depends on our ability to address interracial and cross-cultural issues. In recent years, civic debates ranging from real estate to antihomophobia policies in schools has raised the spectre of racism between groups of Asian and non-Asian citizens.

      What has been a long-running influential problem is that the majority of images on screen are imported from America, where racial issues focus on black and white people, rather than Asian and white relations.

      What's telling is that Kim's Convenience star Andrea Bang told the Straight that even though she wanted to be an actor while she was groinwg up, she didn't think it was even a possibility because she never saw anyone who looked like her on screen.

      What's more, she has noticed a chasm between the message she receives from media, and everyday life here in Metro Vancouver.

      "I find it really interesting because people say Asians are a minority but then growing up in Vancouver, we're like a majority of people," she said. "So it's interesting, the fact that even the word minority, it's like you are an outsider, whereas I don't feel that way living in Vancouver but TV and media tells me that I am a minority and I don't see my face on TV."

      As many local film industry professionals have expressed, if we don't have the ability to tell our own stories, how will we know ourselves? In that vein, if we aren't able to see Vancouver's diversity represented and reflected on screen, will we become more poorly prepared and ill-equipped to deal with social challenges in the future than we already are?

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook